New York’s strict voter registration rules sparked mounting frustration and anger among Bernie Sanders supporters on Tuesday as some discovered they were unable to vote in the primary election showdown with Hillary Clinton only after arriving at their local polling stations.
The issue has been attracting growing attention in recent weeks as the New York race appeared to become unexpectedly competitive months after the 9 October deadline to register as a Democrat had passed. (New voters were able to register and choose their party affiliation until 25 March.) But there were plenty of voters who remained unaware of the requirement until they tried in vain to find their name on the list of eligible voters on polling day.
By Tuesday afternoon, New York City comptroller Scott Stringer had ordered an audit of the operations of the city’s election board after it confirmed that more than 125,000 voters in Brooklyn had been removed from voter rolls. In a letter addressed to Michael Ryan, director of the state Board of Elections, Stringer expressed “deep concern over widespread reports of poll site problems and irregularities” as voters cast their ballots at polling stations across the city.
“As a result of today’s reported irregularities, my office will be auditing the management and operations of the Board of Elections in order to identify failings and make recommendations to improve performance going forward,” Stringer wrote in the letter. “As I am sure you would agree, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, all New Yorkers deserve an electoral system that is free, fair and efficient – not one riddled with chaos and confusion.”
New York mayor Bill de Blasio said the “numerous errors” in voter rolls in Brooklyn were evidence that major reforms were needed to the election board and state law.
“The perception that numerous voters may have been disenfranchised undermines the integrity of the entire electoral process and must be fixed,” De Blasio said in a statement.
Other registered voters arrived at polling stations claiming they had met all the requirements to switch party affiliation in time, yet still found themselves missing from the list, prompting angry scenes that may further hamper hopes of reconciling the two wings of the Democratic party once the nomination is decided.
“I voted in 2008 [in the general election] with just my driver’s license and assumed it would be fine again,” said Tania Staykova, a 40-year-old Sanders supporter in Tribeca, who is head of production at an advertising agency.
“I was at the polling station at 9am, second in line, and it was only after I spoke to the fourth guy that he explained I needed to register as Democrat when I renewed my license. At no point before that was there any warning.”
All the Democratic and Republican campaigns have been trying to alert supporters to the unusually tight rules in the “closed” New York primary for some time, but it appears to be a particular issue for Sanders and Donald Trump, whose campaigns have tended to attract high numbers of independent supporters in other states.
“When I was at the DMV renewing my license last year, I just didn’t want to affiliate with the Democrats at that point,” added Staykova. “It doesn’t feel at all democratic to me.”
By mid-afternoon on polling day, more than a dozen voters had contacted the Guardian to report varying degrees of frustration with the process, many of whom said they were required to cast provisional votes by affidavit while they waited to have their names checked for eligibility.
“I’m one of the many Brooklynites who found his name inexplicably taken off the rolls when I tried to vote,” said Andrew Prayzner of Bushwick. “Prior to today, I never felt the need to check my eligibility, as I have voted in Democratic primaries before as far back as when Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were campaigning. I am outraged by this situation and feel that this really undermines the credibility of our government.”
Others expressed concern that even voting provisionally required a series of further hurdles.
“Ultimately, I was able to vote by affidavit … [and] though this experience was not exactly fun, I am significantly less worried about my vote than I am with the fact that poll workers remarked that this had been happening to long-registered voters all day long,” added another New Yorker, Emily Pelz. “What if they didn’t have a New York driver’s license on hand? What if they didn’t know their social security number by heart? Those voters were prevented from voting today.”
New York is one of several states that limit participation in the primary election to those registered in advance with a party, but its six-month cutoff window is by far the strictest in the country.
Garrett O’Connor, a labor organizer in Brooklyn, said he was only able to cast a provisional ballot on Tuesday despite changing his party registration before the deadline.
O’Connor said he was previously affiliated with the Working Families party before deciding to change his affiliation to the Democrats in October so that he could vote in Tuesday’s primary.
When O’Connor, 36, showed up to his polling location in Brooklyn, he said he didn’t appear on the list of registered voters in his polling place, and election workers were not able to explain why his name wasn’t on the list. O’Connor cast a vote for Sanders in a provisional ballot, but his vote won’t be counted until after Tuesday when his voter eligibility is confirmed.
“A provisional ballot isn’t enough,” he said. “[It was] important to me to show up and be counted and not to be labeled lazy or apathetic.”
Tim Dubnau, an organizer with the Communications Workers of America union, said he had spoken with many voters who were unable to cast ballots today because of the state’s particular registration regulations.
While passing out leaflets for Sanders in Brooklyn, Dubnau said he spoke with “dozens” of people who weren’t able to vote because they were registered as independent, some of whom wanted to change their party affiliation but weren’t able to in time for Tuesday’s primary.
“It feels like it’s taking away democracy,” he said. “Whenever the powers that be disenfranchize a lot of people, it feels like it’s not a level playing field.”
Campaign volunteers say they have encountered scores of potential Sanders supporters in similar situations while knocking on doors in recent days.
“A lot of people were shocked. They didn’t realise,” said Colette Houlihan, a 40-year-old office manager from Queens. “I don’t think it’s fair. If the Democratic party wants to get more people involved, especially young people, they need to include them, not just slam the door in their face.”
The issue is thought to particularly affect younger independent voters, but college campuses have been active in alerting some to the deadline.
“Our school has done a really good job of making sure we know how to register, but many people did not have that luxury,” said Daniella Torrealva, a 20-year-old student at New York University. “People weren’t familiar with where to register, how to register. They just weren’t familiar with the process at all.”
Sanders campaign officials have been more muted in their criticism of the process than Trump, who found that two of his own children failed to register in time for vote for him. The Sanders camp declined to comment further on Tuesday as they waited for results to come in, but leading Sanders surrogate Ben Jealous blasted the system in an interview with CNN as “typical New York voter laws that make it hard to challenge the status quo”.
Clinton supporters argue that the fact their candidate does better in closed primaries is a sign of her ability to represent and unify the party, and have questioned the commitment to the party of Sanders, who ran as an independent senator for Vermont.
Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.